People who believe in conspiracy theories tend to be insecure and paranoid, suggests a new study in the Psychological Bulletin.
Conspiracy theorists are also likely to be emotionally volatile and impulsive, according to the findings.
But they’re not all mentally unstable, say some psychologists.
They found that people can be prone to believe in conspiracy theories due to a combination of personality traits and motivations.
These include relying strongly on their intuition, feeling a sense of antagonism, and superiority toward others, and perceiving threats in their environment.
The results of the study that was published online, paint a “nuanced” picture of what drives conspiracy theorists, according to lead author Shauna Bowes.
“Conspiracy theorists are not all likely to be simple-minded, mentally unwell folks – a portrait which is routinely painted in popular culture,” said Bowes, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Emory University.
“Instead, many turn to conspiracy theories to fulfill deprived motivational needs and make sense of distress and impairment.”
She said previous research on what drives conspiracy theorists had mainly looked separately at personality and motivation.
The new study aimed to examine those factors together to arrive at a more unified account of why people believe in conspiracy theories.
The research team analyzed data from 170 studies involving more than 158,000 participants, mainly in the UK, USA, and Poland.
They focused on studies that measured participants’ motivations or personality traits associated with conspiratorial thinking.
The team found that, overall, people were motivated to believe in conspiracy theories by a need to understand and feel safe in their environment, regardless of facts, and a need to feel like the community they identify with is superior to others.
Bowes said that even though many conspiracy theories seem to provide clarity or a supposed secret truth about confusing events, a need for closure or a sense of control were not the strongest motivators to endorse conspiracy theories.
Instead, the research team found some evidence that people were more likely to believe specific conspiracy theories when they were motivated by social relationships.
For instance, participants who perceived social threats were more likely to believe in events-based conspiracy theories, such as the theory that the U.S. government planned the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, rather than an abstract theory that, in general, governments plan to harm their citizens to retain power.
“These results largely map onto a recent theoretical framework advancing that social identity motives may give rise to being drawn to the content of a conspiracy theory,” said Bowes on the study. “Whereas people who are motivated by a desire to feel unique are more likely to believe in general conspiracy theories about how the world works.”
The researchers also found that people with certain personality traits – such as a sense of antagonism toward others and high levels of paranoia, were more prone to believe conspiracy theories.
Those who strongly believed in conspiracy theories were also more likely to be insecure, paranoid, emotionally volatile, impulsive, suspicious, withdrawn, manipulative, egocentric and eccentric.
The ‘Big Five’ personality traits – extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism – had a much weaker relationship with conspiratorial thinking, although the researchers said that does not mean that general personality traits are irrelevant to a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories.
“Future research should be conducted with an awareness that conspiratorial thinking is complicated, and that there are important and diverse variables that should be explored in the relations among conspiratorial thinking, motivation and personality to understand the overall psychology behind conspiratorial ideas,” said Bowes.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
Edited by Alberto Arellano and Sterling Creighton Beard
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